O'Brien, Brendan (1941–2008), showband singer, was born 23 July 1941 in the family home of 5 Montpellier Terrace, Wellington Road, Cork city, the youngest of five children of Edward O'Brien, engineer, and his wife Ellen (née Crowley). The O'Briens soon moved outside Cork city to Riverstown House, Glanmire, a rambling, Georgian-style mansion, where his father engaged in large-scale farming. In 1950 the family returned to Cork city, this time residing at Military Hill after his father sold Riverstown House and worked as an engineer with CIÉ.
Around then Brendan became interested in music, and studied the piano, violin and trumpet before opting for the guitar after seeing Elvis Presley in Love me tender (1956). Aged 17 he was playing in semi-professional local outfits, notably the Johnny Byrne Showband. While working for the summer in London (c.1958/9), he entered the Carroll Lewis singing contest, won his area heat, and eventually came second in the finals at the Finsbury Park Empire.
After completing his leaving certificate in the Christian Brothers College off Wellington Road, O'Brien joined an architectural firm in Cork and studied by night in the local school of art. In 1960 he emigrated to London where he worked as a junior draughtsman, temporarily quitting music to concentrate on becoming an architect. Had he persevered he would probably have done so, being the academically gifted product of a prosperous and high-achieving family; one of his brothers became a neurosurgeon, while the other two were thriving businessmen. But the lure of music proved too strong, and he flew home in July 1961 to audition successfully for a local Cork ensemble, the Dixielanders.
Originally formed as a jazz act in 1954, the Dixielanders had developed into a fully fledged showband and were close to turning professional. Increasingly referred to by fans as the Dixies, they formally adopted this moniker in 1965, and it became the name by which they are remembered. O'Brien was drafted in as a vocalist and rhythm guitarist to replace the departing Jimmy Mintern, but also because the band wanted a young, good-looking singer. The Dixies immediately embarked on a tour of England, playing for seventeen consecutive nights, following which an exhausted O'Brien spent two days in bed.
The decision to turn professional that September was well-timed, as the showband scene, which had been gathering momentum from the mid 1950s, bloomed spectacularly in 1960–61. Originally the Dixies did not have a lead singer, but O'Brien soon emerged as such, his mild, mellow and deep voice being particularly suitable for recordings. On stage he modelled himself on Buddy Holly, and the Dixies included many Buddy Holly songs in their sets, in time also releasing various cover versions. O'Brien's voice, looks and beatific manner quickly attracted a female following, but the Dixies were not a one-man band: drummer Joe McCarthy's madcap comedy acrobatics earned him joint top billing, while the music was held together by highly regarded bandleader Theo Cahill, formerly of the Cork Symphony Orchestra.
The Dixies were well known in Cork, Limerick and Waterford, locations where they could attract crowds of up to 3,000, but elsewhere might play in front of as few as 200 people. Their 'home' venue was the Arcadia ballroom in Cork city, which once packed in a record attendance of 4,300 to see them. The Arcadia's owner, Peter Prendergast, became their manager and proved an excellent promoter, demonstrating a flair for publicity gimmicks. In 1963 he claimed that the Dixies had performed in Rome and Paris, dispatching the band to those cities from where they mailed postcards to journalists and DJs back in Ireland. There was also an alleged audience with Pope Paul VI.
Relentless touring enabled the Dixies to break out of their regional base and emerge in 1964 as one of the top showband draws in the country. After a two-week tour of Irish-American ballrooms in September 1964, including a performance in Carnegie Hall in New York, they were welcomed back to Cork like all-Ireland champions, receiving an open-top bus parade through the city. Eventually a large billboard was erected in the outskirts declaring: 'Welcome to Cork, the home of the Dixies'. Routinely mobbed by girls in public, O'Brien attained teen-idol status, and when on stage was careful not to stray too close to the front for fear of being dragged under by female admirers. In showband terms, his popularity was comparable to that of Joe Dolan (qv) and Dickie Rock, though not quite at the level of Brendan Bowyer.
From 1963 the Dixies released a steady succession of singles with an emphasis on quantity rather than quality, drawing for several years from a marathon, three-day recording session in 1965 that yielded fourteen songs. Like most showbands, they regarded records as a means of promoting their live shows, the mainstay of their popularity. Combining a wide-ranging repertoire with a vaudevillian sensibility and the contrasting showmanship stylings of O'Brien and MacCarthy, these performances bore the mark of genre pioneers the Clipper Carlton showband, whom the original Dixielanders had regularly supported in the Arcadia. Their popularity peaked in the late 1960s when they enjoyed chart success with the 1968 release 'Little arrows', which reached no. 1 and stayed in the charts for twenty weeks. The Dixies dominated that year's Spotlight magazine awards, claiming band of the year, singer of the year (O'Brien), record of the year ('Little arrows'), showman of the year (McCarthy), and instrumentalist of the year (Steve Lynch).
Comparatively well-paid, the band increased their share of the ballroom takings from fifty to sixty per cent as their reputation grew, and in 1969 opened their own venue in the East End of London and established a record label, Honey Records. O'Brien could afford fast cars, boats and Spanish holidays, and invested wisely in commercial property. After marrying in the mid 1960s, he lived with his wife Marie (née Curtin) and family in a large detached house at Tivoli, Cork, later moving to Glounthane, where he had a swimming pool (a novelty at the time).
Maintaining a more or less unchanged line-up for over a decade, the Dixies were a notable exception to the pattern that saw many showbands split up in the late 1960s when their leading star or stars formed their own groups and paid the backing musicians a fixed wage instead of sharing profits equally. Despite the punishing touring schedules, the Dixies remained remarkably close-knit, continuing to socialise together even on rare days off; O'Brien resisted numerous attempts by deep-pocketed promoters to lure him away.
It helped that he was easygoing, gracious and bereft of ego. Moreover, he thoroughly enjoyed being in the most raucous showband in the country, as the Dixies enlivened the grind of touring by perpetrating all manner of pranks and escapades. In April 1967 they gained notoriety by repeatedly circling the Queen Mary ocean liner in a motorboat in Cork Harbour before running aground on a sandbank half a mile from the shore, being rescued after some tribulations. The more excitable tabloid newspapers suggested that they had rammed the ocean liner.
In 1969 the Dixies successfully auditioned for a Las Vegas residency, being only one of two Irish showbands to do so, and performed for eight weeks in the Desert Inn, returning for twelve weeks in 1970. During these stints, they appeared on US television and befriended assorted American celebrities, O'Brien becoming drinking companion to actor James Coburn. Despite enjoying these experiences, they disliked being away from Ireland and turned down further offers in Las Vegas and elsewhere in America. O'Brien later admitted this was a mistake, as the showband scene in Ireland went into steep decline thereafter, forcing the Dixies in 1971 to close their London ballroom and sell Honey Records.
Tougher times and a tempting financial offer from a group of local Cork businessmen finally induced O'Brien and MacCarthy to leave and form a new band, Stage 2, in January 1972. Under the terms of this deal, they were to receive £100,000 each over five years (some of this being in property). No expense was spared in recruiting a strong backing group and, in an unheard of luxury, Stage 2 travelled in two transit vans: one for the band, another for the equipment and roadies. There were some personality conflicts and members came and went, but the band was booked solidly on the ballroom circuit, particularly after focusing on pop and comedy and ending a failed early experiment with a heavier bass sound. They had a no. 5 Irish hit with 'Beautiful Sunday' in 1973. However Stage 2 was succeeding within a declining genre and never quite realised its backers' expectations.
On 1 October 1974 O'Brien was singing at a charity event in the Stardust Ballroom in Cork when he received an electric shock from the microphone, later estimated to be of 220 volts, which he was lucky to survive. After a hospital examination he was released and briefly resumed performing with Stage 2, but soon experienced problems walking; it emerged that the valves in his leg veins had been destroyed, leaving him liable to blood clots. He was hospitalised for three months and nearly died. These injuries prevented him from moving freely and long obliged him to lie down for three hours a day with his feet above his head.
He eventually recovered physically, but the prolonged convalescence derailed his career and threw him into depression and alcoholism. Despite maintaining periodic dry spells, he struggled with drink for the rest of his life. Seeking a source of income, he went into business for a time with former Dixie colleague Sean Lucey, supplying pool tables and video games to pubs, clubs and hotels. However, his unsuccessful bids to sue the owners of the Stardust Ballroom for loss of earnings in the high court (1979) and supreme court (1980) exhausted his formerly considerable financial resources. He was forced to sell his investment properties, car, cruiser and house, and also to take his son out of college. In early 1981 he attempted a comeback as a solo artist, but poor health prevented him from performing regularly.
When the rest of the Dixies reformed in late 1982, he sobered up and joined them on the road. Over the next three years they toured Ireland, Britain, America and the United Arab Emirates, enjoying a final Irish chart hit in 1983 with 'Ballroom dancing', the seventeenth of O'Brien's career. However, the Dixies dismissed him in 1985 because his drinking made him too unreliable. It also caused the final collapse of his marriage in 1986. During this period he was twice convicted for drink driving and briefly imprisoned for non-payment of a motoring fine. Barred from many pubs in Cork and hospitalised nearly thirty times with drink-related conditions, he spoke frankly about the devastating impact his alcoholism had both on himself and his family.
In 1989 he released the Brendan O'Brien collection, consisting of all his hits with the Dixies and Stage 2. When capable of doing so, he performed intermittently as a solo singer and briefly reunited again with the Dixies in 1992. He also appeared regularly on RTÉ light entertainment shows up to his death, and in the late 1990s sang with the Showband Stars alongside his friend and rival Brendan Bowyer. Latterly he lived alone in his Cork city flat, isolated from his two sons, three daughters and estranged wife who had all moved to Canada, but he remained a well-known and popular figure locally and an enduring lounge-circuit draw.
He died 3 April 2008 in his flat in Gerald Griffin Street, Cork, and was buried in St Finbar's cemetery. A coroner's inquest found that heavy alcohol consumption over an extended period had contributed to the cardiac failure that caused his death.